Monthly Archives: February 2013

The power struggle between politicians and reporters

Remember Andrea Seabrook? She was the congressional correspondent who quit her job at NPR last summer, saying she was tired of serving as a mouthpiece for the carefully calibrated spin of politicians.

I thought of Seabrook after watching the first two episodes of Netflix’s “House of Cards,” which features a cynical and calculating House Majority Whip who exploits a young newspaper reporter’s hunger for a big scoop by feeding her information that, when reported in the fictional Washington Herald, enables his master plan. I was amazed at how gullible and vulnerable the political journalists appear in the show, and how eager they are to become tools of a cunning politician’s arsenal. This can’t be how it is in real life, I thought, until I remembered Seabrook.

Here’s what she told Politico last summer after she made her resignation public:

“I realized that there is a part of covering Congress, if you’re doing daily coverage, that is actually sort of colluding with the politicians themselves because so much of what I was doing was actually recording and playing what they say or repeating what they say.”

“Colluding” is such an apt description of the fictional relationship on “House of Cards” between Zoe Barnes and Frank Underwood, the Washington Herald reporter and the House Majority Whip. By the end of the second episode, however, it doesn’t appear that Barnes even realizes she’s getting played. It does not appear to bother her that she’s trading the integrity of the profession to advance her career.

I’m not the only one whose curiosity was piqued by Barnes’s role. The New York Times’s Media Decoder blog just started a series of posts called “Debating ‘House of Cards’: What the Show Gets Right and Wrong About Journalism.” In discussing the first episode, Ashley Parker makes a good point:

“I protect your identity, I print what you tell me, and I’ll never ask any questions,” [Barnes] says, offering to be a virtual transcription monkey after her sexy outfit and picture gets her literally through the front door. (I can’t imagine many publications — dead-tree, online, or otherwise — scrambling to hire a reporter whose opening pitch is that she’ll ask no questions.)

Indeed, serious news organizations strive to hire reporters who will ask tough questions and do the research and critical thinking necessary to avoid serving as a stenographer to the powerful. “House of Cards” is likely exaggerating the capacity of politicians to exploit the media for political gain.

Still, Andrea Seabrook’s experience suggests that there is some truth to what we see on “House of Cards.” Since quitting NPR, Seabrook has been working on her own 30-minute podcast called Decode DC. She discussed her editorial philosophy In a recent interview with Flipboard:

I have some rules. One is never repeat verbatim what a politician says, because it is calculated to spin. It is calculated to reach their audience directly. Try and tell stories that don’t fit at all into that narrative. And it takes some creativity and some thought to go to the right people and ask them, ‘Hey, where are the blank spaces? What are people not hearing in the media?’

You know, we did a show called ‘Voter Guide’ right before the election, and it was a show that kind of talked to different kinds of people about what’s notbeing talked about in the election, and what that means for voting, and how they might think about voting if they care about these other issues.

Democracy in the U.S. could benefit greatly from the kind of journalism Seabrook is now practicing. While business pressures have limited the amount of investigative and explanatory journalism out there, it is promising to see new media organizations such as Decode DC, Homicide Watch DC, California Watch, Voice of San Diego and others step in to fill the void. Journalists would do well to treat Zoe Barnes (at least in the first two episodes, which is all I have seen so far) as an example of “what not to do,” and look to Seabrook and others as models of what journalism should be.

UC Davis students launch new campus newspaper

As advertising revenues evaporate at college newspapers across the country, newsprint seems headed toward the recycle bin of history. A group of UC Davis students is betting against the odds, however, with a new student newspaper called The Davis Beat.

The paper, produced by the newly-formed Journalism Club at UC Davis, published its first issue last Wednesday. It is a biweekly, 12-page tabloid-size paper with two pages of color.

So how are they paying for it? At 2,000 copies per issue, each print run costs $462, said Davis Beat Editor-in-Chief Adrian Glass-Moore. The Journalism Club secured a $1600 grant from the student body association’s Club Finance Council to cover printing costs. Staffers work for free. Glass-Moore said he hopes the paper can survive with paid advertising once the grant money dries up.

“I’m hoping that there is the market there for it,” Glass-Moore said. “We’re not at all expecting that the university would support us (financially).”

The Davis Beat will be competing for advertising dollars with The California Aggie, the established daily student newspaper that has been printing for nearly 100 years. The Aggie, however, has seen a significant drop in its own ad revenues over the past two years, said Editor-in-Chief Janelle Bitker.

“If they can find new sources, then more power to them,” Bitker said. “A lot of businesses just say they’re not buying print ads anymore. They’re only doing online.”

Declining print advertising revenues may force further cutbacks at The Aggie. The Davis Beat’s print product may not survive longer than a few months.

“If we had to, we’d go online, but I think there’s something that I personally find attractive about the physical paper,” Glass-Moore said.

Even with an online-only product, there’s room for more than one student news outlet at UC Davis. Glass-Moore, a junior East Asian Studies major from San Francisco, said he was inspired by the multitude of options for news in the Bay Area, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the Bay Guardian, SF Weekly and The Examiner.

“I think it’s really important to be able to choose where you get your news and be able to compare,” Glass-Moore said.

He wants his paper to have more of a focus on investigative journalism, especially with regard to hot-button issues such as depression treatment and prescription drug abuse on campus. The first issue featured articles on UC’s new smoking ban and new laboratory safety regulations. Glass-Moore said he hopes the biweekly format will give writers more time to work on investigations than would a daily format.

There is certainly no shortage of issues to be investigated at UC Davis and at college campuses across the country. The real challenge for student journalists at The Davis Beat, The California Aggie and other college newspapers will be how to keep their institutions alive in a rapidly changing market.

Small revisions, big improvements

As I sort through my recent work to choose my best clips for journalism job applications, I am frequently surprised by how much better my writing is now than it was even just two or three years ago. I would not say any of my old writing is bad, but I now see so many little ways I could have said things more concisely or organized information more cohesively.

Take, for example, this freelance feature I wrote for the U-T in 2009:

Copy of 2009 U-T article by Jeremy Ogul

Here’s what I wrote then:

Two years ago, Javier Quiroz was shot to death at Colina Park Golf Course, less than two blocks from his City Heights home. Quiroz, 14, was preparing to start his freshman year at Patrick Henry High School and had no history of gang activity.

His brother, Agustin Pena, mourned with his family, but Agustin also saw an opportunity to fight back. Working with PowerMentor, a local nonprofit organization, Pena helped start a series of family movie nights in San Diego and Chula Vista parks in 2008.

Here’s how I would write the same thing today:

Javier Quiroz, 14, was preparing to begin his freshman year at Patrick Henry High School two years ago when he was shot dead at Colina Park Golf Course, less than two blocks from his City Heights home. Police determined Quiroz, who had no history of gang activity, was the victim of random gang violence.

For Quiroz’s brother, Agustin Pena, the killing was a catalyst: It was time to take back the neighborhood from the gang members who were terrorizing innocent people. He began working with a local nonprofit, PowerMentor, to start a series of family movie nights in the city’s most dangerous parks in 2008.

Here’s my reasoning for the changes I made:

  • Revising the first sentence to include Quiroz’s age makes it more immediately clear that a child, not an adult, was shot and killed. It adds to the shock value of the lead.
  • The original second paragraph did not make it clear enough how these new family movie nights were related to Quiroz’s death. The revised second paragraph removes ambiguity by explaining that these movie nights were a way of wresting power back from the gangs that killed Quiroz.
  • The revised third sentence omits the statement that Agustin mourned, a fact which is so obvious it does not really need to be stated.

People who don’t write for newspapers may not see these edits as anything more than marginal tinkering with word order. An experienced writer or editor, however, will understand how these revisions strengthen the first two paragraphs. Journalism requires the writer to convey dramatic impact in as few words as possible. You can’t count on the reader to take the time to figure out what you really mean. You have to get directly to the point, making the point as strong, clear and immediately comprehensible as possible.

Of course, I could probably look at any article I wrote in the past couple months and find ways to improve it. You don’t have an infinite amount of time to get everything perfect when you’re on deadline. There is always room for improvement, but I do feel there is more room for improvement in my 2009 writing than in my 2013 writing. That’s a good sign.